By Anthony Tokarz
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who defeated populist rival Geert Wilders in his reelection campaign, has described the April French Presidential Election as the “semi-final” for the future of Europe: his own election was the “quarter-final” and the upcoming German elections for Chancellor are the “finals.” French polls expect the populist Marine Le Pen, leader of her father’s National Front Party, to win the first round on April 23 and lose the May 7 runoffs to liberal challenger and former Economy Minister for incumbent Francois Hollande Emanuel Macron, founder of the months-old En Marche! movement. The other contestants have lost public support and media attention as their odds of winning slipped. Francois Fillon, former Prime Minister under President Nicholas Sarkozy, has suffered from a scandal over the revelation that he had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for a sinecure post in his administration, and his affiliation with Hollande hamstrung Socialist contender Benoit Hamon.
The author of this piece, having read many a news report and trawled his contacts list to consult French friends, expects Le Pen to win by a narrow margin. What follows is an analysis of how he arrived at that conclusion and what such an outcome might mean in the context of Rutte’s “semi-final” dialectic.
One cannot understand the importance or meaning of the upcoming election without first studying recent French history and how it has affected the French psyche. Since the French Revolution, “France” has evolved beyond a nation to an idea. French politicians have sought to preserve France’s importance on the world stage as a Great Power, but they have also taken pains to present France as a propagator of human values throughout the world, especially in Europe. This notion of France as an idea led France to found the European Union following World War II. France dominated and flourished in the European Union until other nations began joining, and it has since ceded much of its authority to rivals Germany and the United Kingdom.
This cession, most pronounced under Hollande, has generated indignation quite similar to that which allowed for the ascension of Charles de Gaulle in 1959: tensions at home and abroad fueled feelings of insecurity, and the French people respond by taking refuge in the empowerment of a confident and charismatic individual. De Gaulle benefited from the 1958 Algerian Crisis, during which French military hardliners in Algeria attempted a coup against the incumbent President. Today, Marine Le Pen stands poised to benefit from mounting ethnic tension, which spiked following the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings, November 2015 Paris attacks, and the July 2016 Nice truck ramming. Le Pen’s militant nationalism might well reassure French voters who, along with the blocs that supported Brexit and elected Donald Trump, have tired of what they see as marginalization of national interests and the accommodation of suspect populations.
Such views align with a nationalist trend in the history of French politics, and Le Pen’s promises of secession from the European Union and the resurrection of the franc echo de Gaulle’s France First and Third Way—the assertion of French interests during periods of détente between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.—and could mobilize voters in much the same way.
At this point, it is worth noting that France operates under a semi-presidential system of governance, meaning that a strong chief executive must turn to the French parliament for support in most decisions while retaining the privilege of unilateral action in certain situations. Thus, despite his or her power, the chief executive must assemble a governing coalition to guide the nation’s policy. Le Pen benefits from an entrenched power base in the south and a 44-year history of political activism that she can leverage to garner support and project power. Macron, on the other hand, oversees a largely informal and scattered voter base through his En Marche! party, which he founded in October. The voting public will likely hold this lack of organization against him in favor of a better-organized and more developed party such as Le Pen’s.
A closing note: the people of the Netherlands reelected Mark Rutte over Geert Wilders not so much because of their problems with Wilders’s ideology or his campaign rhetoric, but because of their distaste for Wilders’s open support and imitation of Donald Trump, whom many Europeans regard with suspicion. The author of this piece suspects that, to win, Marine Le Pen need only present herself as a mature, stable, and confident candidate with the political experience to make France indispensable again, without appearing too reverent of the man that promised to Make America Great Again.